For years, wireless technologies have only shown up in many U.S. hospitals in the form of rolling computers with Wi-Fi network access, but as evidenced at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, times are changing.
Like many other medical care facilities, the 750-bed hospital located just north of Chicago's Loop district has struggled over the last decade to find ways to push wireless devices and applications deeper into its operations without causing undo headaches for its workers, patients, and IT infrastructure.
Under a new effort aimed at re-architecting its internal network and using a handful of technologies built by GE Healthcare, hospital executives say the institution is finally appreciating many new caregiving and patient support opportunities that untethered access has long promised to deliver.
The hospital's urban location has made it difficult in years past simply to get a reliable wireless phone signal, said Chuck Colander, director of the Chief Technology Office at Northwestern Memorial.
By working directly with the five individual mobile service providers that cover its geographical area and using an integrated wireless platform sold by GE under the product name Carescape Enterprise Access, Colander said that the facility is finally getting its calls through -- as well as adopting new telemetry applications for medical devices and preparing to tap into wireless VoIP.
"Wireless is obviously nothing new in health care, but we've been severely limited in the past in terms of what we could offer to support our mobile caregivers and patients," Colander said. "We've never even had a strong signal in the building, so as we started on our campus development program, we needed something denser to prepare for a future that involves handheld devices and broadband technologies, not just for our workforce but also for patients."
One of the greatest benefits of program thus far has been Northwestern Memorial's work to bring wireless telemetry, or monitoring, onto more of its floors, said the IT executive.
Whereas only a few of the hospital's rooms were previously capable of allowing for the technologies -- used in portable heart monitors and other measurement equipment -- now the institution has much greater flexibility as to where it can locate patients who need such devices and in allowing those patients to move about its halls with greater freedom.
The difference between having patients physically tied to certain rooms in the facility versus the gaining freedom to move them or let them move themselves around the hospital is a huge advantage, he said.
"In the previous scenario, when people were attached to one of these devices, they essentially couldn't move without being disconnected or having someone carry the unit, but by being able to expand coverage and be more flexible, we've been able to increase capacity by threefold," said Colander. "We can also monitor patients while they move throughout the building, which is a tremendous boost to the overall quality of care and patient experience."
The expanded wireless coverage has also made it possible for patients and their families to stay better in touch using mobile phones, an important capability in light of the fact that people are often moved between different rooms as their care evolves, according to the executive.